“Wille Vooruitsigte” (Wild Prospects) said winemaker Conrad Vlok, when I spoke to him recently about the runaway success of their First Sighting Sauvignon Blanc, of which the 2017 vintage received a 97 Point Decanter rating and Platinum Medal.
For the record, I had been touting this wine to anyone who would listen way before its stellar ratings had been awarded - but you know, no-one listens to me.
Vlok talks easily, comfortably expressive in Afrikaans, humble, hardworking, passionate. I liked him instantly, even though we were only able to speak via Skype and my camera wasn’t working. I was therefore left to judge only by the texture of his voice and the turn of his phrases, which painted the picture in my mind so vividly, I felt like I was sitting at Strandveld, hands in the soil watching the story unfold. Vlok is Strandveld’s first winemaker, he’s been there for 15 years, going on 16. Strandveld vineyards is owned by two entities, Rietfontein Trust (30%) and Strandveld Vineyards (70%), which is made up of a number of stockholders. When asked how this diverse group of people found each other, nevermind decided to start a winefarm together, Vlok answers candidly: “Wyn is mos ’n wonderlike ding.” (Wine is a wonderful thing.) It was the wine that brought them together, and the excitement of a previously unexplored wine region that lit the fire. Vlok goes on to talk about the romantic ideal of making wine, with a man that pulls-up a “gewillige spreadsheet” (a willing spreadsheet) with incredible prospects, belying the great effort required to attain such lofty heights. Making wine at the most Southern-tip of Africa is a job for an adventurer. When I ask him what he did in his previous life, I imagine him smirking with a mischievous glint in his eye, as he says “seerower” (pirate). Conrad has a passion for sea kayaking, and in his previous life practiced this hobby all over Southern Africa - hence the “seerower” reference. After that he did stints at Delheim and Darling Cellars, among others, working under Spatz Sperling and AB Beukes. He became aware of the Elim ward only when Dirk Human (a family friend and owner of the Black Oystercatcher) started planting vines in 1998. Meaning that when the opportunity came along to make wines from Elim vines, he was well acquainted with the place and rearing to go. Though I think the wildness of it was the thing that attracted him most. You see the most Southern point of Africa has gone down in history as one of the most treacherous places to circumvent by sea, the wind being one of its biggest detractors, and yet, the WIND is one of its biggest advantages to maritime winemakers like Conrad.
The god of wind and storm is named Adamastor, so called by 16th Century Portuguese poet Luis Camões. The Portuguese conquistadors had such a terrible time rounding the Cape of Good Hope, they had to ascribe it to some furious god, or banished Titan as it turns out.
“Appalled, we saw a hideous phantom glare;
High and enormous over the flood he towered,
And thwart our way with sullen aspect lowered…”
- Luis Camões
The Spirit of the Cape (Adamastor) is said to have been a Titan, who had been banished to the Cape of Good Hope for falling in love with a nymph, he was turned into the jagged mountain at the Southern-most tip of Africa and still rages at this confinement. Strandveld’s white Bordeaux blend of 54% Sauvignon and 46% Semillon is named for this captive Titan, as these cool climate varietals benefit so much from his rage. The wind that often blows over this vineyard ensures cooling, which combined with the maritime conditions and poor soils, lightly wooded, ensures a beautiful expression.
Similarly, the Anders Sparrman Pinot Noir is named for a Swedish adventurer and naturalist who traveled to the Cape of Good Hope in 1772 and accompanied James Cook on his journey to the Antarctic. He returned to Cape Town in 1775 to practice medicine and journey into the interior, writing books about his travels and findings. His careful documentation of Africa is mimicked in this Pinot Noir, as it is the result of careful observation over the past 10 years to ascertain what clone would best perform in this maritime climate. Hence the theme of discovery, adventure and a firm love of this young winemaking region is etched out in each wine. The Pofadderbos Sauvignon Blanc is one of Vlok’s favourite wines, named for the Pofadder who bit the seemingly immortal German Schnauzer, Pepper, and lived in that particular bush (sidenote: said bite did not prove to be Pepper’s final hour).
Elim means ‘Place of God’, most probably named by the Moravian missionaries who established the town in 1824. Today Elim is a ward within the Agulhas district made up of 4 producers and 10 brands, with winemaking only re-established there in 1997 (The Moravians while being staunch advocates of sobriety, still required sacramental wine). Conrad speaks of these producers as his familiars, a community of farmers first, then winemakers. The four main producers (The Berrio, Black Oystercatcher, Zoetendal and Strandveld) have established themselves as the Elim Winegrowers and have undertaken the Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area Initiative in an effort to preserve the very unique fauna and flora of the Agulhas coastal plains, some listed on the Red Data endangered list. The Skaamgesiggie (Shy Face) Protea Pudens being one of these, a very rare Protea only to be found in the Elim ward, said to be shy because it faces down and the name of Conrad’s Pinot Noir Brut Methodé Cap Classique - though Conrad jokingly says it’s named for the Skaamgesiggie you make when drinking too MUCH Skaamgesiggie. Strandveld sits 9km from the ocean, between Elim and Agulhas, and is the most Southerly of all its peers, bearing the full brunt of Adamastor. When asked about how the drought affected them, Conrad brushes it off, saying that while they didn’t suffer from the drought, they did suffer from various unusual weather patterns in 2017. Ice rain in Spring, a hail storm in November, and unusually moderate, cool and dry weather to round it off. From which I surmise that the surviving fruit must be the very epitome of its sort and am therefore getting my fill of the 2018 vintage wines now. When asked about the proverbial grapevine in Elim, and how each farmer assists the other, Vlok mentions something very true: “Elke mens se hand is uniek.” (Every person’s hand is unique.) Making one think that a trip to Elim might very well be a good idea somewhere in the near future.
At the end of the day, what struck me about Conrad was the inevitability of what he does. He speaks of the wine, the place, the methods, the weather as if they were all, always meant to be, as if there was never any alternative than their having become what they are. A seerower having found his place on land.